The reformist Raja Rammohun Roy was not only the first person to coin the term “Hinduism” but also the first Brahmin to travel to England. This he did in the winter of 1830, on a three-month-long journey by ship, taking along two cows so that he could have fresh milk. He never returned to India, dying three years later of meningitis, but it is likely that fellow adherents of his would not have recoiled in orthodox horror. As it were, the conservative Hindus of Calcutta, who were cut up with him for successfully having sati abolished, spread tales about Rammohun Roy eating with Muslims and even secretly fathering a child with a Muslim woman.
Such is the price that he had to pay in order to earn the legacy of the father of modern India. “[H]e studied matters not in the abstract or in academic solitude but with the practical objective of securing human happiness and freedom,” says Amiya P Sen, author of Rammohun Roy: A Critical Biography. “That made him a modern man.”
Being a modern man has its consequences, and for Rammohun Roy one was the bitter falling out he had with his mother, Tarini Devi. In fact, the easiest parts to read in Sen’s biography are those dealing with not the evolution of Roy’s ideas but the turbulence in his personal life.
The fact of his reformist ideas — his criticism of idolatry, his unprecedented advocacy of girls’ education, and his proposals for a daughter’s share in inheritance — apparently led him to being as good as disowned by his mum. She even took him to court. Roy was sued by her proxy, his nephew Govinda Prasad (who later expressed regret for having sued his uncle).
Despite the personal bits, you have to ask: Is there a need for this book? Most students of modern Indian history have already endured dreary biographies of Roy, starting with SD Collet’s. Heavy on academic rigour, these books have opted not to engage the young mind. Sen admits as much as saying that this slender volume was written to make Roy accessible to a wider readership. In addition, most writing in English has not made use of the many tracts Roy had written in Bengali; the Bengali literary scholar Brajendranath Bandopadhyay did so nearly a century ago, in the process questioning the veracity of many of the popular legends and anecdotes, but Bandopadhyay’s research does not much figure in recent biographies. Hence, another setting-straight of the record.
Reading this book reminded me of the scant attention paid to Roy in the ambitious intellectual history publication of the year, Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire. Mishra argued that Rabindranath Tagore was the first to intellectually reject the West, perhaps finding it difficult to fit Rammohun Roy into his timeline by an inconvenient 100 years.
True, Roy did not strictly reject the West, and true, he wished India to be fully opened commercially to the British. Yet he wanted more British presence because he thought it would modernise India faster. The fact is that Roy was as interested in political and legal reform as he was in social and religious reform. He started a thought process that fellow Brahmo Tagore picked up. And of timelines, then what could be neater than the fact that the father of modern India was born (1774) just a few years after the British defeated Nawab of Bengal in the battles of Plassey and Buxar (1756-57); it shows that in the seed of British rule was born the idea that would ultimately end it.
Though Sen has written for a wider audience, Roy’s biography still requires an industrious reader. Anyone who persists with it, however, will be rewarded with a deeper appreciation of Roy as the man who brought Vedanta back into vogue, rescuing Hinduism in his part of India from the “verbal quibbling” of the Nyaya and Samkhya schools of Indian philosophy.
As a Vedantin Roy translated into Bangla several Upanishadic texts, and so his reform also comprised a literary democratisation. From the unity of Vedanta it was not a difficult transition to the ideas of the Unitarian Church, which led many of Roy’s British friends to believe that he was on his way to converting to Christianity. That was not the case, however; it was merely an idea that Roy was drawing upon in order to reform Hinduism in order that it may be prepared to facilitate modernity.
Nowadays, many Indians engage in much hand-wringing about what is wrong with our society, given the widespread political, financial and moral corruption. Some Indians even posit that fundamental changes in our polity are required if India is to reach her potential. These Indians, whether in our political class or in our civil society, would do well to revisit the life and ideas of Raja Rammohun Roy, who took the first and biggest step of all — a step that is always the most dangerous and never assured of success — in reforming the enduring idea that is India.
The writer is the Editor-in-Chief, DNA, based in Mumbai